UFC is the most popular MMA organization in the world.
There were moments in UFC’s history where it wasn’t even sure if the brand will survive or go bankrupt. But, through controversy and financial problems, they emerged and rose in value from $2 million in 2001 to $4+ billion in 2016.
The promotion worked hard to get to this point, though. Rule changes, better marketing, and the signing of global fighting stars made UFC rise above the competition.
Let’s take a look at UFC history and the path it took to become one of the most recognizable companies in the history of sports.
When Was UFC started?
Although some forms of mixed martial arts existed before the UFC (e.g., the Brazilian Vale Tudo), they were the first to introduce MMA as we know it today. It all began in the early 90s when Art Davie watched a couple of videos from the Gracies in Action series.
The Gracie family jiu-jitsu students squared off against various opponents who practice other martial arts in the series. So, Davie called Rorion Gracie and John Milius, proposing a tournament named War of the Worlds, where fighters of different styles would fight each other in a no holds barred match.
Davie introduced that proposition in early 1993. After picking the fighters and making all the media and television deals, the first WOW Promotions event was ready to go.
It happened on November 12, 1993, and it was supposed to be a one-time show. However, the PPV numbers were incredible, so they decided to make another event.
The rest is history.
The fighters in the first event didn’t train multiple martial arts, but only one (kickboxing, BJJ, wrestling, etc.). In the end, Royce Gracie won the tournament with three consecutive transitions, proving that grappling is a great counter for striking.
How Did the UFC Get Started?
The first couple of UFC events were highly dominated by BJJ.
Gracie won three of the first four events, even though he was only around 80kg, and there were no weight categories. He used his grappling to neutralize the size advantage his opponents had.
When the promotion began, every event was designed as a tournament, meaning the fighters would fight three or four times in a single night. It wasn’t rare to see a fighter already damaged in previous fights going in the octagon and doing it all over again.
What makes that even more mind-boggling is that there were only a couple of rules for the fighters. The promotion marketed the events with the phrase “there are no rules,” and it was almost true.
The only thing you couldn’t do is biting and eye-gouging. You could wear shoes and still kick people, and gloves weren’t mandatory.
You could use groin shots, head kicks to grounded opponents, shots to the back of the head, hair pulling, and even hit the opponent with your head. It was a brutal fight, and many people saw it as a violent street fight instead of a sport.
More and more backlash from the authorities forced the UFC to reform its rules with time, making it more of a sport and less of a street fight.
Implementing New Rules
Three years into the UFC’s existence, the backlash against it spread among the general public and authorities. 36 out of 50 US states banned the events, so the UFC was forced to change the rules.
It was only logical, as it wasn’t rare to see a guy delivering several shots to his opponent’s groin or fish-hooking his mouth.
UFC started collaborating with state athletic commissions to make the rules more acceptable.
The first change happened on UFC 12, where fish-hooking got banned, and the promotion implemented weight classes to avoid unfair advantages for any fighter.
Next, UFC 14 made gloves mandatory, while UFC 15 banned groin shots, headbutts, small-joint locks, and back-of-the-head strikes.
As the promotion became more of a sport than a street fight, its popularity began to rise.
During this time, single fights finally got introduced instead of tournaments, so the fighters were always fresh, uninjured, and ready to give their best. Soon, the tournament system evaporated from the UFC completely.
Fighters realized that using only one technique isn’t sufficient, so they started training both striking and grappling.
The first UFC stars were born in Ken Shamrock, Mark Coleman, Pat Miletich, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, and others.
Early 2000s: Financial Troubles and Ownership Changes
In the early 2000s, the lack of business strategy almost made the promotion go bankrupt. It was almost disbanded before Dana White, and the Fertitta brothers took over.
They bought the UFC in 2001 for $2 million and made crucial changes to save the franchise. Nobody ever knew how far they would take it.
They returned the UFC to cable PPV, which led to a gradual rise in popularity. They advertised better, made sponsorship deals, DVDs, etc. Also, they developed storylines to hype up matches, increasing PPV buys by a huge margin.
The event representing the big turnaround was UFC 40 that sold 150 000 PPVs, headlined by Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock. 
Before that event, everybody thought the days of MMA in the USA are numbered, but that event showed a recipe for success that the UFC still has to this day.
Mid-2000s: UFCs Surge in Popularity
After UFC 40, the promotion completely turned things around. It took some time, but MMA was more popular than ever. The rules continued to develop, the fighters got more and more skilled, and the rise of global stars such as Randy Couture, Liddell, Hughes, and others was huge.
In 2004, some new blood entered the picture, later becoming huge global superstars. Anderson Silva, BJ Penn, Georges St-Pierre, and Matt Serra joined the Octagon and made great strides in popularizing the sport.
Another thing that played a huge role in the development of UFC was the start of The Ultimate Fighter. The show gathered some of the best prospects and squared them off in matches. The winner got a UFC contract. That’s how guys like Anderson Silva got into the UFC.
The finale of the first season of TUF is still one of the best MMA fights in history, with Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar brawling it out and earning their contracts.
After the UFC signed a partnership with FOX television, the popularity skyrocketed. The event became more approachable, and the visibility of the brand increased dramatically. Superstars like Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, and others started racking up 300 000, and more PPV buys, and the UFC finally became incredibly profitable.
They merged with World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) in 2006, introducing lighter weight classes and legendary fighters such as Jose Aldo, Dominick Cruz, Carlos Condit, and Donald Cerrone. That was only the beginning of buying out the competition, as the Fertitta brothers bought Pride FC and WFA only a year after that.
2010s: Introduction of Women Fights
The promotion continued to grow over the 2010s, especially after they bought out one of their biggest rival promotions, Strikeforce. Most fighters continued to fight in the UFC, so they got stars like Nick Diaz, Alistair Overeem, and Dan Henderson.
One of the biggest moves they made, though, was the introduction of women categories. Many considered it a non-profitable move, but Ronda Rousey quickly became one of the biggest stars the UFC ever had, breaking PPV records left and right.
Seeing the success, the promotion launched new women divisions, while Rousey ruled the bantamweight division for years.
This period gave us some of the biggest MMA names of all time, including Jon Jones, Demetrious Johnson, Conor McGregor, Stipe Miocic, Daniel Cormier, Cain Velasquez, etc.
UFC Today: New Ownership Change
If you want to know just how much Zuffa, the Fertitta brothers, and Dana White developed MMA and UFC, you only need to look at the numbers. The brothers decided to get out of the business in 2016 after 15 years of majority ownership of the UFC.
They bought the franchise for $2 million and sold it to Endeavor and partners for a mind-blowing $4.025 billion.
What furthermore accelerated the global growth of UFC and MMA is the surge of international superstars that took the game by storm, including Kamaru Usman, Israel Adesanya, Francis Ngannou, and others.
From the 2016 ownership change to today, the UFC’s value doubled, thanks to great PPV results, new superstars emerging, social media presence, and a new deal with ESPN, one of the biggest media brands in sports history. New ownership changes might come soon, as sources reveal, but nothing is certain.
UFC made MMA as we know it today, and it’s still one of the fastest-rising franchises in the world. Soon, it might take boxing off the throne, making MMA the most popular combat sport in the world.